By Kara Bishop
On a quiet neighborhood street in Idalou, Texas, sits a 92-year-old man looking for ways to pass the time. Time is funny that way. One minute you’re at the peak of your career, raising children, serving on multiple civic and industry boards. Vacationing. Taking pictures. Preserving memories, and then the next minute comes.
And the memories are all you have left.
The fireplace is decorated with those memories, the office is lined with plaques and certificates of accomplishments. The TV plays in the background to break through the deafening silence. And the old grandfather clock ticks on.
To his neighbors, he’s a quiet, older gentleman, keeping to himself and suffering loss the past couple of years. They have no idea of the trailblazer that still resides in the heart of W.B. Criswell. Even today, the cotton industry feels his impact.
On March 10, 1951, Criswell married fellow Idalou native, Jo Ellen Barnhart. They moved to Melbourne, Florida, shortly after — a member of the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, Criswell was stationed at Patrick Air Force Base.
Together, they spent four years raising two children, Rodney and Teresa, in an 8-foot by 23-foot trailer.
When W.B.’s service ended, the Criswells moved back to Idalou where they welcomed their third child, Gary, and began farming in 1956.
W.B. always knew farming would be his livelihood and was the third generation of his family to carry the torch. While reading the paper one day, he came across an advertisement of a monthly meeting. The organization was in its early infancy — established just a few months before W.B. moved back home. The name? Plains Cotton Growers.
“I believed in the mission,” W.B. recalled. “I knew it was important for farmers to have a voice in policy, so I became a member that day.”
Even in the U.S. Air Force, W.B. was a forward thinker. He worked in the research department developing ways to enhance satellite technology for communication devices.
“The foundation of the technology on that right there came from our work in the military,” he added, pointing to the smartphone on the table.
The first “module builder” was developed on W.B.’s farm. From 1975 to 1976, Cotton Incorporated would use W.B.’s land and resources to develop a module builder — allowing for more efficient transport of cotton to the gins.
“All of the farmers were waiting on a certain amount of trailers to carry their crop to the gins,” he recalled. “We tried the ricker first, which was more of a storage container for the cotton until the next available trailer arrived for transport. The following year, we were able to build modules that could be transported by trucks. And that’s when we started making strides in efficient cotton transportation.”
W.B. spent the next three decades actively involved in PCG, assuming the president’s role in 1975. He was a member of the Cotton Incorporated Board of Directors and a delegate of the National Cotton Council. During his presidential tenure, he advocated for the cotton industry in Washington D.C., helping to develop the 1977 U.S. Farm Bill.
Every weekend for four months during the summer of 1976, W.B. flew into Washington where his Congressman, Rep. George H. Mahon (D-Texas), was waiting for him. There was much work to be done.
The 1973 Farm Bill terminated a $10 million annual authorization for cotton promotion and research facilitated by Cotton Inc. and reduced the commodity payment limit for producers from $55,000 (1970 Farm Bill) to $20,000.
After months of advocacy and education, the agriculture industry was happy with the strength of the 1977 legislation.
In this legislation, Title XIV: National Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching Policy Act was established, which designated the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the lead federal agency for agricultural research, extension and teaching in the food and agricultural sciences.
It also established a target price program, in which the government would pay the difference to producers should the market price fall below the agreed-upon benchmark.
“I believe the 1977 Farm Bill was the foundation of all future legislation,” W.B. said. “It did a lot for producers when it was passed.
The two crop years after the 1977 Farm Bill went into effect were good years; therefore, the government didn’t have to worry about the parity price payments. However, 1979 went differently.
“When the government realized they were going to have to pay a pretty hefty price difference — I believe market prices were in the low 50s — they modified the ruling,” W.B. added.
This was one of the “straws that broke the camel’s back,” resulting in the 1979 “Tractorcade,” where thousands of farmers rallied on the National Mall. Tractors were everywhere. At 15 miles-per-hour, farmers covered maybe one hundred miles per day, often resting their equipment on the side of the highways leading to Washington. They traveled in convoy fashion, and according to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, “descended on the nation’s Capitol Feb. 5, 1979.”
“I knew of several who went,” W.B. recalled. “But from an organization standpoint, PCG decided that we would strive for change through policy. That was our whole mission.
“While those were some interesting times, I learned so much those few months on the Hill and the two years I was PCG President. I am a better person because of it and am proud of the work we accomplished.”
W.B. wasn’t just a farmer. He was also a cowboy, home renovator and custom harvester.
He bought 10 Registered Black Angus heifers in 1956. “I knew that if I needed money in a pinch, or had a bad crop year, I could sell some cows to stay afloat,” he said.
At one point, W.B. and his business partner, Buddy Hettler, were working with 2,200 head.
They worked cattle all over West Texas and whether they were close to home or in the Plainview area, their wives would still bring them dinner. The men were always amazed that no matter how many miles away from home they were, the food was always hot.
W.B. bought two cotton strippers so he could add another stream of income to his bottom line. The crop seasons in different regions worked well for his side business. “We’d plant our cotton, then head to South Texas to harvest theirs,” he added.
In the middle of farming cotton, working cattle and serving on bank boards, PCG board, city boards and civic duties, W.B. headed to the bank to ask for a home construction loan. “I wanted to flip some houses in Ruidoso, New Mexico,” he recalled. “The bank didn’t like it — thought it was not worth the risk — but they worked with me anyway and it was a profitable venture.”
Originally, W.B. started with 160 acres in 1956, working his way up to just shy of 1,000 before retirement. He still remembers his best crop.
“It was 1973,” he said. “I made 1.5 bales per acre that year.”
Even with his responsibilities, one of W.B.’s favorite things about his livelihood was the ability to be with his children.
THE FAMILY MAN
“While you worked long hours farming, you could be present to watch your kids play sports or extracurriculars,” W.B. said. “I had to make the hours up, of course, but I always liked that farming allowed me to be present.”
He and Jo Ellen enjoyed 70 years of marriage together. They travelled to all 50 United States promoting cotton everywhere they went. His wife served as president of the Lubbock County Women’s Cotton Ancillary and was Chair of the Lubbock County Miss Cotton Contest in the 1970s. She had a knack for conservation — rarely threw anything away — was resourceful to the point of purchasing a TV with S&H green stamps and was renowned for her letter correspondence. Jo Ellen passed away April 15, 2021.
While the Criswell kids were busy with school and sports growing up, they also worked on the farm, and even after graduation, Rodney helped with the custom harvesting business, farmed for himself for several years, and sprayed fields for the boll weevil eradication program. He is now retired, driving a truck for Idalou Co-op Gin when they need him.
Teresa served as a Gaines County extension agent for many years, and is now retired from working as the state 4-H director in College Station.
Gary, a sales representative with Becknell Wholesale Company, developed a love for motorcycles, along with his father. They often rode together, and even this year, W.B. drove his convertible alongside Gary enjoying the hill country on the ride that he and 20 others from the Lubbock area go on every year.
On April 16, they parted ways in Junction, Texas. Gary headed back to the Corpus Christi area; and W.B. came back to Idalou with some merchandise that Gary had asked him to return to Bucknell.
W.B. was home for an hour before Rodney came through the door to tell him Gary had a fatal accident. “He told me he was going to take a route we never take; it has a lot of curves and winding road, and we lost him.”
Time seems even slower now, yet the clock’s rhythm never changes.
The paths he forged for the cotton industry may be forgotten by most; however, the influence lives on as others take up the mantel to protect and promote the interests of High Plains cotton producers.
Outliving friends and family, he sits in the same silence he’s been in for two years waiting for time to pass. But, that’s OK. He knows Gary is keeping Jo Ellen company as they also wait on him.